Fooled Twice in Libya?

A recent Washington Post report highlighted a U.S. military presence in Libya that might be a precursor to further American involvement in that country. Two teams of U.S. Special Operations forces are currently operating near the cities of Misurata and Benghazi. Their task is to identify local militias hostile to the Islamic State in preparation for a potential assault on ISIS forces in the country.

Since the 2011 U.S.-led NATO intervention that toppled Muammar Gaddafi’s government, Libya has become “a failed state,” according to Army Gen. David Rodriguez, the top U.S. commander in Africa. The chaos resulting from the collapse of the central government has rendered Libya a major arms-trafficking hub and “home to the world’s largest loose arms cache,” as well as a battlefield for a wide array of armed factions. In this unstable environment, the Islamic State has been able to establish a substantial presence. As of February 2016, the group had about 6,500 fighters in Libya, more than double the number it had in the fall of 2015. It also controls 150 miles of coastline.

In the face of this alarming growth, local forces have had difficulty organizing against ISIS. A civil conflict that started in 2014 led to the establishment of two de facto governments holding large chunks of the country and competing for power. A newly formed, internationally recognized unity government has garnered some tentative support from the various factions, but it has been difficult for it to make headway on the ground.

The growth of a terrorist presence in Libya has alarmed the United States and is causing policymakers to consider a second American intervention targeting the Islamic State’s strongholds. Part of the role of the in-country special operators is to assess the security environment so that “the United States can move in additional personnel more safely” in the event of a broader deployment of forces. The Washington Post notes that “for months, the Pentagon has been developing plans for potential action against the group. … And the U.S. personnel, whose ongoing presence had not been previously reported, is a sign of the acceleration toward another military campaign in Libya.”

The poor results of the first U.S. intervention in Libya should raise questions about how effective further military involvement will be, particularly if it involves a substantial ground force. This past May, the Charles Koch Institute hosted a foreign policy conference exploring how military operations like the prospective intervention in Libya affect the safety and security of the United States. The conference, entitled Advancing American Security: The Future of U.S. Foreign Policy, examined how U.S. grand strategy has evolved from the end of the Cold War to the present and explore what we’ve learned from its successes and failures.